Highlights from the Maker Generation

Last month, I was in Richmond, Virginia for the recruiting session at the VCU Brandcenter. I saw a ton of books – copywriters, art directors, and creative technologists. I continue to be amazed by the Maker Generation. When I graduated VCU forever ago, I left with a suitcase-shaped black portfolio full of double-page magazine spec ads that had been trimmed with an X-acto blade and spray mounted to black mounting boards. But today, if students have an idea, they go make it. Here are three examples from the VCU Brandcenter recruiting session that stuck with me (shown with permission).  

banethatcher.com

After Margaret Thatcher died, Maddison Bradley and Jon Robbins were listening to some of her quotes and thought, “These sound like the kind of things Bane would say.” So they created banethatcher.com. I don’t know British Conservative politics of the mid-1980’s well enough to comment, but I’m amazed that they pulled this together in a couple of days.

Harry Potter Ipsum

When Olivia Abtahi and Christina Chern needed some lorem ipsum, they thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool if this weren’t just gibberish, but Harry Potter gibberish?” So they created Harry Potter Ipsum. Feel free to accio your own text on their joint Most Auspicious.

Dragon Grips

Sam Cantor, Nick Marx, and Hunter Pechin didn’t just go to portfolio school to make spec ads. They came up with Dragon Grips, an actual, functioning product. (That just happens to be surrounded with some well-thought-out marketing.)


“People’s Choice Award” Winner: DragonGrips from Nick on Vimeo.

An Observation of Student Books

This being graduation and recruiting season, I’ve seen a lot of student portfolios lately. Seriously, gobs of them. And this is generally what I’m seeing:

  • Lots of digital ideas
  • Lots of integrated ideas
  • Lots of side-bar explanations of how the digital and/or integrated ideas are supposed to work
  • Not a lot of print
  • Not a whole lot of outdoor

If I were a student in portfolio school, I’d probably skew toward the digital/integrated ideas, too. Done right, they’re cooler, more memorable, and it’s the direction the industry has been heading for about a decade now. And we’re thinkers and concepters first and foremost, right?

But here’s the catch: speaking for the majority of creative directors and recruiters, the best way for me to judge your talents is with an unsexy, unglamorous old school medium: a print ad. If you’re a copywriter, a bunch of headlines and scintillating body copy lets me know you can write. If you’re an art director, a double-page spread is going to tell me more about your skills and artistic judgement than a big idea blown out across six media channels.

I’m not knocking digital, integration, or big, big thinking in any way. You need that stuff in your book to be competitive. But imagine you’re a creative director, with a couple of portfolios on your desk. All writing and art direction being equal, this is what pretty much what you’ll come away with:

BOOK #1 contains several digital pieces with their accompanying explanations, a couple integrated campaigns with their accompanying explanations, and a billboard campaign.

My reaction: Wow. Some pretty cool ideas in here. At least I think so. I didn’t take the time to read through all the explanations.



BOOK #2 contains several print campaigns which might even be a part of one or two integrated campaigns, a couple digital pieces.

My reaction: Wow. Some pretty cool ideas in here. And this kid can really write/art direct. We could use them here.

Multiply Book #1 by about 20, and Book #2 by three or four, and you start to see why having big ideas on their own might not be enough to get you a job.

You need to be a big thinker. And digital and integrated campaigns are usually the best way to show off your brain.

But agencies don’t hire big thinkers. They hire writers and art directors who think big. And as unsexy as it sounds, the best way to show off your craft is usually a double-page spread. Sure, roll it into your integrated piece if you can. But don’t assume one print campaign is enough to showcase your talent.

An Idea Isn’t Everything

This is another in a series from AKQA creative Nathan Archambault. You can follow him on Twitter @NKArch.

Concept is king. It’s all about the idea. Your goal with every brief should be to come up with an idea so big that other big ideas become jealous. Right?

Not so fast. Coming up with a big idea is just one of the many steps that it takes to produce great work. And it isn’t always the most important step to a client. Sometimes it’s not even the most important step to an agency.



The details matter

Lately I’ve been seeing student books that feel like they’re full of high-level case studies. Videos that present the idea but don’t actually explain how it comes to life. After nailing a big idea, you’ve got to figure out the minor details. Not every big idea translates to a great ad. Without thinking through the small things, you’ll never know if your big idea is anything more than a great starting point. When it comes to executing a campaign, an idea isn’t everything.
The strategy matters
Clients don’t want ideas that come out of left field, even if it’s a great idea. Your campaign needs a foundation. You need to be able to explain the insight that led to your idea. Be perfectly clear about why this idea will be an effective one for the client and the target. When it comes to thinking strategically, an idea isn’t everything.
The client matters
Don’t forget that we work in a service industry. Our clients aren’t in the business of supporting the advertising industry. They’re in the business of making profits and selling products. They’re only interested in one type of idea – the kind that grows their business. When it comes to client needs, an idea isn’t everything.
The budget matters
A client isn’t going to toss more money at a project because an idea is so freaking awesome. Doesn’t matter how much they love it. If the best idea goes over budget, the next best idea moves into the starting line-up. Or, even worse, you’re asked to rework your great idea until it’s nothing but a sad shell of its former self. When it comes to sticking to budget, an idea isn’t everything.
The presentation matters
Part of the job is getting clients pumped up for your big idea to become a big reality. That may mean some theater. It may mean bravado. It takes a different approach for every client and every presentation. Just remember, clients weren’t there during your brainstorm sessions. They may not fully understand the thought that led to your idea. You’ve got to set it up for success, making it sound revolutionary. Make it seem like anything but your big idea would be disaster. When it comes to the presentation, an idea isn’t everything.
The objective matters
Every ad has a job to do. Your great idea should lead to action, interaction, or whatever the goal may be. An idea can be cool, but it also needs a nerdy side. A side that accomplishes the very straightforward and quantifiable goal put forth by the client in the first place. When it comes to building a brand, an idea isn’t everything.
There are a lot of factors that can make or break a campaign. Do all these things well, and your big idea becomes that much bigger. It also moves that much closer to becoming a reality.

The Student’s Paradox

I just stumbled upon the three new channels Mini is featuring on Pandora: Snow, Asphalt, and Dirt Road. Really fun to listen to. And as one of my friends pointed out, “It’s the little things that make up a brand.”

Here’s the problem: As much as I love this idea, if I saw it in a student book, my reaction would be a resounding “Eh.” Not because it’s not brilliant. It is. But if I experienced it as an idea in a student book, and not as an actual, working piece of communication, it would have been entirely forgettable.

It’s not really fair, I know.
If your student book had an entire campaign about how Pandora is now integrated into each Mini, and a really good print or web campaign were the focal point, and these Pandora channels were more of a sidebar, that would be great. (In fact, that’s pretty much what Mini, and I’m guessing their agency Butler, Shine, Stern + Partners did.)
But it needs to be pointed out again and again that peppering your student portfolio with single digital ideas like this isn’t going to make your book stand out. In fact, they will probably take your book down a notch.

And then what?

Kevin Lynch at Proximity has a pretty good way of approaching digital projects (although he insists he must have stolen it from someone else). He told me that when he comes up with an idea for an app or web site, or anything interactive, he and his team ask, “And then what?”


“It’s an app that let’s people track which stores they’ve visited that week.”

“Okay. And then what?”


“It’s a website that shows the new marsupial exhibit at the zoo.”

“Cool. And then what?”


“It’s a music video that’s also a Twitter/Google Docs mashup.”

“Sounds interesting. And then what?”


It’s fairly easy to come up with a decent idea for a digital project. You come up with ideas all the time, right? But it’s just as easy to stop there and assume you’ve got it all figured out.


Kevin says it’s not until your throw five or six “and then what?”s at a project that it starts to become really remarkable. Give it a try.

Jim Haven Wants to See Your Print Work

On the heels of the last two posts, here’s something from Creature co-founder, Jim Haven.


In this article for TalentZoo.com, Haven explains what he looks for when hiring creatives:I’m looking for great ideas, like everyone else, but I think I’d almost rather see a well-crafted print campaign right now than something like augmented reality or an iPhone app. Shocking? Old school? I know; but there’s a reason, actually.”


Any of you wanting to work for a shop like Creature (98% of you) should check out the article to read his reasons. They’re pretty much in line with our Blank Page Manifesto.

12 Ways Digital is Different Than Traditional

We’re proud to feature the following article, another in a series from AKQA creative Nathan Archambault. Thanks for the insights, Nate. (You can follow him on Twitter @NKArch.)

I’m a creative, you’re a creative. Right?

Not exactly.

In some ways we’re the same. We’re briefed. We concept. We revise. We present. Hopefully, we sell. But behind closed agency doors there are a lot of differences between what digital and traditional creatives do. And while I have a writer’s perspective, all this stuff applies to you, too, art directors. Don’t reach for your Wacom tablets just yet. Now where to begin…

Digital creatives don’t make ads. That’s what traditional creatives do. TV spots, print ads, billboards, all that good stuff. Digital creatives develop experiences. Anything that involves a click and a call to action is more than an ad. It’s content. Sites, mobile apps, social media. Videos, products, services. These are all experiences that interact with people differently than traditional ads, both intellectually and physically. Even a static banner that drives to a website is an experience. Unfortunately, that’s why so many banners are ineffective – confused creatives think they’re making an ad.

Digital has to work harder. TV ads have no competition for your attention. They pop into your living room. Then they’re gone. But digital work will only be effective if people choose to spend time with it. It needs to be entertaining, provide utility or both. It takes much more strategic thinking to create a successful digital campaign. You can’t just throw ideas against the wall until one sticks. You’ve got to have a damn good reason for throwing an idea at that specific wall, at that certain time, at that very spot.

Digital doesn’t just talk. It starts a conversation. Digital isn’t about getting people to think something; it’s about getting people to do something. Click here. Proceed to check out. View this video. Take an action, any action, whatever it may be. Traditional media passively connects with people. It interrupts TV shows or appears in between magazine articles. Look at all the TV ads that drive to a brand’s site. Digital is where brands can really interact with people. Take AKQA’s recent award-winning Fiat Eco:Drive work. It’s not targeted at people buying cars, exactly. It’s aimed at people who are trying to decrease their carbon footprint. Fiat listened to them. Now they want to hear more from Fiat.

Digital knows how to multitask. The best traditional advertising does one thing. Spreads awareness, makes something cool, provides entertainment, gives a brand a voice. It falters when it tries to do too many things at once, or tries to reach too large an audience. But digital work has to do everything at once. It has to be functional and entertaining, clear and thorough, concise and explanatory. You don’t know who is viewing your work. Copy has to appeal to different users. A site isn’t going to talk to a first-time visitor and a diehard fan the same way. That would alienate both groups of people. If someone doesn’t like the experience you’ve created, they’ll go surf somewhere else.

The creative departments aren’t built with the same pieces. Traditional agencies are a 50/50 split of art directors and copywriters who usually work in teams. That’s not the case at digital agencies with design- and tech-heavy projects. (I’m not just talking about visual design. There’s user experience design, too.) Digital creative departments are a mix of copywriters, art directors, visual designers, user experience designers, and creative developers. That means writers work on more projects. Art directors become better designers. And everyone thinks more strategically.

Digital creatives aren’t paired with a partner. That’s not exactly true. We’re actually paired with partners all the time. A new one every project. In digital-based shops, it doesn’t make sense to permanently pair a copywriter with an art director. Depending on what the client wants, I could team with anyone from the creative department. What creative really wants to be monogamous, anyway? It’s not natural. Especially for people who choose to get into advertising.

There’s been a shift in the balance of workload. Digital work comes in all shapes and sizes. There are copy-heavy projects and design-heavy ones. Tech-based projects and strategic ones. I’ve written copy on my own, like when I authored seven articles for a client’s microsite. Then there are projects, such as visual branding assignments or web guidelines, that doesn’t require much input from a writer at all. That doesn’t mean anyone gets off easy. Everyone is still on the same team. Sometimes I work late watching the designers work their magic. Maybe they’ll need copy, maybe not. My doctor thinks I could use more Vitamin D, but I’ve made way cooler websites than him.

Digital art directors do more than think. We all know one. Those art directors who can’t draw and fumble through Photoshop. Who knows, maybe they get by on their “ideas.” Well, they’d never make it in digital. Just being able to come up with an idea doesn’t cut it. Digital art directors need to be able to execute and nail the minor details. They can’t rely on storyboard artists, graphic designers and post shops to do the dirty work. They need more talents in their toolbox. Which makes complete sense. If you love design, you should know how to do it.

Digital isn’t linear. Traditional ads live in a bubble. They have a clear beginning and end. Once a commercial has been shot and edited, it is what it is. But anything developed for the web evolves. Before coming to AKQA, I’d never created a 40-page copy deck. But that’s what happens when a project has copy for a brand site, a Facebook page, online banners, digital promotions, and mobile apps. Not to mention all the other shapes that pixels can take.

In digital, measurability isn’t a grey area. It’s black and white. Traditional has the luxury of being cool, philosophical or humorous because it’s building brand equity and setting the long-term tone. But there’s not a single brand in the world that would rather be loved than sell their product. Effectiveness is something that has to be taken into consideration for every digital project. Before a digital campaign launches, benchmarks are set. It’s clear whether any given campaign is a success or a failure. So while traditional creatives may say their project is cool, digital creatives can say their project was effective. And only one of those things is not subjective.

Digital happens faster. It takes a while for a traditional campaign to go from brief to launch. Factors like a shooting schedule and media buy can really bloat a schedule. But a digital agency acts as a creative agency and a production shop under one roof. Producing a project can be much more efficient. With the tech team across the room, we can see progress as it happens, instead of relying on outside vendors. That means less waiting around before an idea goes live.

The dinosaurs are going extinct. Being outdated and reactionary isn’t a problem for every traditional agency. Some of them are doing fine. But a lot of them aren’t. Some of them have become the places where creatives go to die. (Maybe not die – that’s a little harsh – but wrap up a career in peace.) As a young creative, the last thing you want is to be influenced by jaded industry vets who have already checked out. Digital doesn’t have the dinosaur problem. The whole industry is too new. It draws the best talent. The most eager talent. It’s not just people into advertising. It’s people into the latest trends and technology. I chose AKQA because of the people. More smart, dedicated people under the same roof than I’d ever seen before. It was something I wanted to be a part of.

If you’re breaking into advertising, you have a choice to make. Traditional vs. digital. David vs. Goliath. The blue pill vs. the red one. There’s no doubt traditional agencies are learning from digital ones, trying to avoid extinction. While digital agencies are busier than ever and getting more traditional assignments. Then there are these so-called integrated agencies popping up left and right, at least on letterhead. True integration is easier in theory than practice. The most important thing is to find a place where you can do the work you want to do. And then kill it.

Notice anything else? Leave a comment.